State Dept. report for Caracas personnel: Crime level ‘critical’

A Venezuelan soldier stands during a patrol at the slum of Petare in Caracas May 23, 2013. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro sent some 3,000 troops into the streets of the capital of Caracas to crack down on rampant crime that has made the OPEC nation one of the most dangerous in the world. The "Secure Fatherland" plan is a new effort to lower violent crime following close to 20 similar attempts during the 14-year rule of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Venezuelan soldier patrols the Petare slum in Caracas on May 23, 2013. (REUTERS/Jorge Silva)

Two U.S. embassy personnel were wounded by gunfire outside a Caracas night spot early Tuesday morning, according to the State Department. The details of the incident are unclear, but it draws attention to the Venezuelan capital's high crime rate .

According to the AP and State Department spokesman William Ostick, the two embassy workers were injured at "some sort of social spot" -- a nightclub, according to several reports in the American press, and a popular strip club called Angelus, according to local journalists. Wherever they were, they received non-life-threatening injuries and are expected to recover. Ostick would not specify the injuries. According to AP, a police spokesman said one was wounded in the leg and abdomen, and the other in the abdomen.

Caracas retains the dubious distinction of being "the world's murder capital" -- Reuters reports that its murder rate, at upwards of 55.2 per 100,000 inhabitants, is one of the highest in the world. There are more than 15 million illegal weapons in the country, according to a 2011 State Department report. Crime has gotten so bad, in fact, that President Nicholas Maduro sent 3,000 soldiers into the streets to establish checkpoints earlier this month, and promised to wage war on TV shows that promote a "cult of weapons."

Violence has bled from Caracas's slums -- where the State Department bans embassy employees from so much as driving, unless they're on a highway -- into its more affluent neighborhoods, like the upper-middle-class residential district where the embassy employees were injured Tuesday morning.

That neighborhood, Chacao, is home to a mall and a number of government employees, both Venezuelan and American. (A 2011 report by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security says the majority of embassy personnel live in Chacao, Baruta or El Hatillo.) But even in those areas, the bureau warns, "armed robberies continue to occur regularly, day or night," and other crimes against foreigners, such as kidnaps for ransom, have become more common.

The neighborhood falls in what the U.S. Embassy in Caracas calls "the orange zone," or an area where direct-hire personnel are discouraged from travelling after 8 p.m. and before 6 a.m.

The bureau further warns diplomatic personnel not to wear valuables, use international credit cards or take public transportation in Caracas, especially to or from the airport:

Embassy employees and visitors have been robbed at gunpoint while walking on the street and while driving. The high volume of vehicular traffic, combined with the poor conditions of roads, has created major traffic problems within Caracas. Armed bandits patrolling the streets on motorcycles prey on potential victims waiting at traffic lights or stuck in heavy traffic.

To sum up the State Deparment's most recent assessment for employees, "the criminal threat level for Caracas is CRITICAL."

Of course, until the State Department or a local police agency releases a more detailed statement, it's impossible to know what happened Tuesday morning.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey | May 28, 2013